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Jun 8, 2017 | 08:00 GMT

Should the U.S. Government Negotiate for Hostages?

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Should the U.S. Government Negotiate for Hostages?
(DARIO LEON/AFP/Getty Images)

If you're an American, you don't want to be taken hostage. Since 2001, 90 Westerners have been kidnapped and killed overseas, and according to a January study from New America, 41 of them were Americans. That American deaths are disproportional to the number of total hostages raises the question: Why not negotiate?

In the study titled "To Pay Ransom or Not to Pay Ransom? An Examination of Western Hostage Policies," authors Christopher Mellon, Peter Bergen and David Sterman examined the cases of 1,185 Westerners kidnapped overseas by terrorist, militant and pirate groups since Sept. 11, 2001. The study reached two conclusions: "First, countries that do not make concessions experience far worse outcomes for their kidnapped citizens than countries that do. Second, there is no evidence that American and British citizens are more protected than other Westerners by the refusal of their governments to make concessions."

The study then made the following policy recommendations:

  1. The United States should clarify its stance on granting immunity from prosecution to third parties that assist the families and friends of hostages held by terrorists.
  2. The United States should facilitate prisoner exchanges for its citizens kidnapped abroad.
  3. The United States should encourage more data-driven study of hostage taking.
  4. The United States should evaluate the degree to which the rise of digital media has changed the cost-benefit analysis underlying its hostage policy.

I had the privilege of debating one of the authors, Mellon, on the efficacy of these policy recommendations at a May 24 meeting of the Faith-Based Organizations Working Group, which is part of the Overseas Security Advisory Council. While deliberating a topic isn't normally within the scope of this column, U.S. hostage policy is of keen interest to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), corporations, families of current hostages and private negotiators.

Examining the Recommendations

First, I agree with the study's recommendation of granting immunity from prosecution to third parties that assist families. A public uproar arose after senior officials in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration threatened to prosecute the families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both journalists captured in Syria, if they paid a ransom to the Islamic State. So in June 2015 the Obama administration altered the policy, saying families would not be prosecuted — a welcome change. Such prosecutions have zero jury appeal, and it is unconscionable to threaten American families as they endure the anxiety of trying to free a kidnapped child.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of disparity in the way the U.S. law applied to families depending on who the kidnappers were. For example, if al Shabaab, a designated foreign terrorist organization, kidnapped a family member in Somalia, a person could be charged with material support of a terrorist group if he or she paid a ransom. However, if Somali pirates kidnapped the family member, there would be no fear of being charged because pirates are not designated as terrorists. The only problem with the updated policy is that it is not a law and can be changed on a whim. Consequently, it needs to be codified. The policy, moreover, is unclear when it comes to companies, NGOs and private negotiators. There has never been a clear-cut statement on whether a company, NGO or private negotiator will be charged after paying a ransom to a terrorist group to free a kidnapped employee (American or otherwise).

Finally, I have no qualms with the third and fourth policy suggestions. More research on the subject is always a good thing.

A Critical Look at the Study

One problem with the methodology of the study arises when the authors fail to account for the cases in which Americans were abducted, but nothing reasonable — or nothing at all — was demanded for their release. For example, a demand to "release all Iraqi captives and completely pull all American troops out of Iraq" is not reasonable, and the captors certainly did not expect it to be met. This means that many (we count at least 14) of the 41 Americans who died in captivity were killed strictly for propaganda purposes.

As the sole global superpower, the United States is seen as the "Great Satan" by Iran and its militant proxies, and jihadists single out America for special hatred because it is viewed as the "head of the snake," or the leader of the crusader coalition. Al Qaeda believes it cannot establish a caliphate until the United States is driven from the Muslim world by terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Killing Americans in propaganda videos is seen as a way to achieve this end.

Some examples of the propaganda executions of Americans include Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Paul Johnson, Cydney Mizell and Owen Armstrong. Several British citizens have been killed for the same reason as well, including Kenneth Bigley, Jason Swindlehurst, Jason Creswell, Alec MacLachlan and David Addison. It is also unclear whether the payment of a ransom would have led to the release of American hostages Sotloff, Foley, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. The Islamic State may have deemed their propaganda value greater than any potential payout.

If you remove hostages who never had a realistic chance of being freed via ransom or prisoner swap, the study's statistics begin to look quite different.

Second, it's a bad idea for the U.S. government to exchange prisoners for hostages. Direct negotiations with terrorists give them an air of importance and parity, and government involvement inflates the value of hostages, increasing the incentive to take them. This inflation has been quite apparent in ransoms paid by governments in the Sahel over the past decade. Terrorists understand that a government has much deeper pockets than a family or NGO.   

But Washington has not always had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. The administration of President Richard Nixon first adopted it during the 1973 seizure of the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. In the attack, U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel Jr. was killed by the Black September Organization. Prior to the incident, Washington's policy had been to encourage governments to negotiate with terrorists in order to free American hostages.

By confining the study to the post-9/11 era, the authors missed a significant lesson that the administration of President Ronald Reagan learned in the mid-1980s when it abandoned the no-concessions policy. Instead, it tried to follow the Israeli model of negotiation in the arms-for-hostages portion of the Iran-Contra scandal, which landed Reagan officials in hot water. Reagan’s team tried to use the money from Iranian arms sales to support the Nicaraguan Contras. The drive for negotiations was prompted by the 1984 abduction of CIA station chief William Buckley in Beirut.

Even when separated from the Nicaraguan portion of the deal, the arms-for-hostages part of Iran-Contra was a bad policy. The arms deals succeeded in gaining the release of Benjamin Weir, Lawrence Jenco and David Jacobsen — three of the seven Western hostages then held in Lebanon. However, after their release, Hezbollah quickly restocked its supply of hostages and kidnapped eight more Westerners. In 1985, the Reagan administration sought to use the Israeli model again after the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. The United States worked with Israel to release 700 Shiite prisoners in exchange for the aircraft and its passengers. This exchange influenced Hezbollah's expectations regarding the Lebanon hostages, and it boosted the hopes of terrorists involved in later hijackings, including EgyptAir Flight 648, Pan Am Flight 73 and Kuwait Airways Flight 422.

For some Hezbollah leaders, such as Imad Mughniyah, the kidnappings had a personal element because they helped free friends and relatives. Mughniyah’s brother-in-law and friend Mustafa Badreddine and 16 other accomplices, known as the Dawa 17, were imprisoned in Kuwait for the December 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy. These events convinced the U.S. government that it was time to return to its policy of no concessions.

Government involvement in prisoner swaps can cause other problems as well, as illustrated by the case of 1st Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh. Al-Kaseasbeh was a Jordanian pilot who was shot down near Raqqa, Syria, on Dec. 24, 2014, and captured. The Islamic State demanded the release of Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a female jihadist who participated in a failed suicide bombing in Amman in 2005 for al Qaeda in Iraq, in exchange for him and Japanese hostage Kenji Goto. The Islamic State negotiated for their release for several weeks with the Jordanian and Japanese governments; all the while al-Kaseasbeh was dead. The Islamic State had burned him to death — and had produced a long propaganda video of the gruesome execution. When a government negotiates, even the talks can be strung out and used for propaganda.

Proving a Negative

One challenge that all governments and security directors face is proving a negative. What events did our policies prevent? It is very difficult to prove what did not happen.

There are some anecdotal cases in which Washington's no-concession policy helped dissuade a kidnapping. One happened shortly after El Sayyid Nosair was arrested in the November 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. A group of Nosair’s friends and supporters — many of whom would later go on to play significant roles in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — explored ways to get him out of New York’s Attica prison. One idea involved kidnapping former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and exchanging him for Nosair. Fortunately for Kissinger, the U.S. no-deal policy led them to scrap the plot.

Finally, the government did, as the report’s authors note, conduct a prisoner swap for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. But there is a big difference between someone who voluntarily enters a war zone, such as a journalist or aid worker, and someone who is ordered to go by their government. When a soldier or diplomat is sent into a dangerous environment, the government has a special duty to do everything in its power to get the hostage released, even in the case of Bergdahl, who was captured under "murky" circumstances. As the inflation principle of government involvement suggests, however, his freedom came at a price: The United States released five senior Taliban members for one U.S. soldier who is now facing desertion charges.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.
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